Sunday, March 22, 2009

Britain's Changing Attitudes to Death

Thomas Gray is not considered one of the great poets in English in the same way that Milton or Byron or Tennyson are, but it all came together for him when he wrote Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard. Gray’s Elegy is one of the great poems in the language, if not any language.

London’s mayor Boris Johnson was writing recently in the Telegraph about what a joy it is to learn poetry by heart and if that’s your thing Gray’s Elegy should be on your shortlist. It’s a good poem to learn because it sticks to classical models of rhyme and meter. So when you recite it the rhythm of the thing is clear and distinct, and very pleasing to the ear.

As for the poem’s reflection on the death that awaits us all, Gray’s Elegy is unsurpassed. Samuel Johnson wrote that "the Churchyard abounds in images which find a mirror in every mind, and with sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo." It’s very much just what the doctor ordered.

And the poem became enormously popular enormously quickly. Eight years after the Elegy was published, the British were laying siege to Montcalm’s French garrison at Quebec. They weren’t getting much change, until General James Wolfe decided on a daring attack up some cliffs that the French didn’t think were assailable, and therefore did not defend as tightly as other parts of the redoubt. As the assault party sailed for the cliffs, Wolfe recited Gray’s Elegy in its entirety to his fellow officers, to keep spirits up.

That’s General Wolfe in the picture above, as famously painted by Benjamin West. As you can see, although he took Quebec Wolfe paid for it with his life. Churchill like to quip during the Second World War that if any Briton doubted his patriotism, he should be told that “Wolfe took Quebec.” You may safely bet your life that Churchill could quote Gray’s Elegy in its entirety also.

It’s now two hundred and fifty years since Wolfe recited Thomas Gray's most famous poem before taking Quebec. News coming from Britain today about another path of glory that’s lead but to the grave shows just how much that country has changed.

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